The Poverty of Libertarianism

I love liberty, being an American and all. I think that the freedom to do what you want to do (within reasonable moral limits) is the staple of a thriving society. That’s why I get very upset about things like the prohibition of Cannabis, because I feel as though history should have taught the human race that prohibition is the wrong way to deal with problems, and will only serve to worsen the problems that existed before. I also think that we should each reap the rewards of our labor, and that we shouldn’t be forced to pay for things we don’t want to pay for.

But I’m not a libertarian. You see, having to pay for things I don’t want to pay for (death penalty, war in Iraq) sucks, and prohibition is really frustrating and annoying, but these problems are so incredibly insignificant compared to everything else going on in the world that it would be selfish of me to focus on them only. I mean, seriously, there are people starving out there, others enslaved, raped, murdered… the world is full of suffering, and if I can’t see past my minor inconveniences to help these people then I’m not a very good human being.

And that’s what it all comes down to, helping people. I’m not saying that libertarians don’t want to help people, I think humans are all built to be attentive to each other’s needs, I’m saying that libertarians are running too far away from our responsibility to each other.

What a lot of this debate comes down to, at least in domestic affairs (welfare, affirmative action) is between giving a man a fish and teaching him to fish. The latter is of course desirable, because then that man can support himself, and we can all be happy contributors to society. But taking welfare away from people is not the same as teaching them to fish, it’s only taking the fish away that we’ve been giving them. One might say that tough love is the best way to teach people to be self reliant, but it’s also a quick way to starve someone if they are incapable of self reliance.

But why should someone not be able to be self reliant in this day and age? After all, information is free. You can walk into a library, study, and get better and better jobs, improving your lot in life. All you need is a bit of motivation, right?

So… all countries living in poverty are lacking motivation, and black people, who are statistically of lower socioeconomic status than white people, are less motivated than white people, right? Uh oh, we’re being racist.

You see, nothing is intrinsic (or everything is). Motivation comes from the environment, from learning that you have to do what is necessary. I wouldn’t be the motivated person I am today if I didn’t grow up in a very very privileged place in society where I had support and encouragement from family, and lots of free time. If I lived in the Ghetto, having to work minimum wage all day and into the night to support a family, or in an alley addicted to crack, I wouldn’t have time to go to the library to read, I might not even be able to read, or have a library nearby. If you want to teach a man to fish, actually do it, don’t say he should teach himself.

You’ve probably noticed how no tea-partiers are black (well, some have black skin, but make enough money and participate in white culture). A survey of the tea party movement found them to be richer and more educated than average America, in other words, privileged. I am the prime demographic for a libertarian minded individual, and I know how one arrives at libertarian conclusions, but I must say that this needs to end. There is more at stake in the world than my “freedom,” there are people who are actually living in dictatorships, not the kind where we call our democratically elected president who has very little power a “dictator.” There are places where if you are caught smoking pot, or drinking, or being gay, you will be put to death.

Freedom is something that people think about when they have enough food and shelter to start thinking. Until we all have this privilege, this ability to think about things beyond our own survival, each of us are responsible for helping each other, and there is no way around this.

 –Prometheus

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About Prometheus

I write about the coming technological singularity and its implications for our sense of identity, individuality, meaning, and existence. I argue that the most significant aspect of the singularity is the convergence of our consciousnesses into one superconsciousness, and that we should be very happy about this.

Posted on May 30, 2011, in Ethics, Values and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Although there are legitimate right libertarians in the US, many who claim this philosophy only do so as an excuse to be selfish. Some of those who live comfortable lives, whether they arrived at that position through inheritance or chance, don’t want to give anything back to society. Rather than being direct and honest about noting wanting to pay taxes out of selfish desire, they obscure their true motivation by hiding behind libertarianism. Libertarianism provides a framework which, and a community who, is compatible with the financial greed of these individuals. This is not to say that all right libertarians are selfish. There are many who arrived at that position through consideration and thought.

    The poverty of those who use libertarianism as a mask for their selfishness is in their lack of insight into how society operates. Those who are wealthy are only wealthy because the state facilitates the protection of their property and capital through legislative and judicial processes. The only reason that a dollar maintains its value is because the state endorses it. Similarly, we only have private property because the state endorses the concept of private property, and provides legal recourse for claims that private property has been taken by another. It is easy for one who lives a comfortable life to become absorbed in the symbols of their wealth, and to lose sight of the broader reasons for their comfort. As John Donne wrote, “no man is an island”.

    In essence, I think that most tea-baggers are of the motivated-by-selfishness school of libertarianism. It is useless to argue the philosophy of libertarianism with these individuals, as they did not arrive at their views through philosophy. They merely wear “libertarianism” as a badge. Recognise their selfishness, and attack the assumptions of their selfishness.

  2. Freedom is something that people think about when they have enough food and shelter to start thinking. Until we all have this privilege, this ability to think about things beyond our own survival, each of us are responsible for helping each other, and there is no way around this.

    My take is a bit different. By continuing to be denied their freedom, people on the brink of starvation are more in need of their freedom than at any other time. they may not explicitly identify it though, as you seemed to suggest.

    With that said, I appreciate your concern for those in need. It is just that libertarians often oppose government-sponsored welfare programs (most of which is used to pay middle-class social workers) because those programs are not able to provide relief as well as grassroots alternatives can. Libertarians (for the most part) are in favor of more money going to those in need. Proven alternatives like mutual aid and fraternal societies (which for the most part have been run out of business at the behest of an alliance of corporate insurance and governments) have a better record of providing social welfare than top-down solutions ever have. If you are interested in learning more about libertarian methods of providing social welfare, I would suggest reading stuff by Marvin Olansky or David Beito.

  3. I am not a libertarian, but I do share some of their views as does the writer of the original piece. For example, on the issue of freedom and government, I believe — along with most libertarians even though I am not one — that minimal government is best; but not for the all the same reasons. I like small government because government tends to be inefficient, can be abusive, and in many cases can use its power to force people to do things they don’t want to do (pay taxes they don’t want to pay, etc. just one example among many). I, too, want more freedom, but in the Libertarian Party mindset, that freedom is typically economic freedom and perhaps some social freedoms, and typically those freedoms come down to business issues. Libertarians wants people — through business and economics — to reap the rewards of their ideas, their hard work, their ingenuity and shrewdness. But these same efforts result in companies monopolizing markets, charging outrageous prices for products, making products that are inferior in quality/dangerous/etc. and outsourcing jobs and manufacturing in far away places — all to maximize their profits and market power. So one set of freedoms (business) tramples on the freedoms of customers, clients, workers, etc. It is also the same mindset that allows companies to exploit people. Unbridled capitalism is as bad as bridled capitalism and not much better than socialism or communism. For example, one can look at drug cartels as a business as well; and look at how many people are killed by drug cartels in their efforts to maximize their profits and move their product around. Not just rival gang members, but innocent people caught up in crossfire shootings, etc.

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